Housing prices are plummeting. Jobs are evaporating. And the economy, as a whole, is in free fall.
But despite -- or perhaps because of -- such relentlessly bad news, there's an up side -- for daters, at least. Singles are wading into the online dating pool in record numbers, giving virtual matchmakers their best traffic figures in years -- and users even better odds for finding a snuggle buddy, a fling or the One.
In addition to "This Cougar is looking for her prey" and other bootylicious come-ons, lonely hearts are now headlining their posts with more somber come-hithers, such as "its a gloomy time of year and im not talking about the rain" or "need hot girlfriend, will provide food."
Whether they charge by the month or accept free posts, online personals websites are experiencing a major boost, even if their users seem to be scaling back on the cost and quantity of their actual dates. Craigslist personals postings and eHarmony.com registrations have each seen 20% increases in 2008. Match.com has seen an even larger spike; its memberships were 22% higher in December than they were in the same period last year. Even more interesting, both eHarmony and Match.com reported especially high traffic on days when the Dow Jones Industrial Average plummeted.
"We had our third busiest weekend of the year following the five-year low in the stock market," said Mandy Ginsberg, general manager of Match.com North America.
That was in mid-November, a historically slow time for Internet dating. But ask people who were brave enough to check their 401(k) balances at that time: November was historic for other reasons too. Not only did the Dow dip below 8,000, but the unemployment rate in California also climbed well above the national average (to 8.2%) and housing prices were down 40% from their peak just 18 months prior.
Those disturbing trends aren't likely to end any time soon. In fact, they're likely to continue, bringing twin results: even higher anxiety levels, and impulses to entwine one's life with that of another.
"Stressful times can have a big effect on people's desire to be in relationships," said Gian Gonzaga, an eHarmony research scientist. "When people are feeling stressed about the economy and feeling stressed about their love lives, they're more likely to want to be in a relationship than when they're not feeling stressed."
Gonzaga was part of the eHarmony team that analyzed the results of a new relationship anxiety survey conducted by Opinion Research; 92% of 1,092 respondents reported feeling stressed about the economy. How does that manifest in individuals' desire for long-term relationships? About 19% of unmarried men and 25% of unmarried women said they wanted one even more.
Jamie Fields is one of those women. The 42-year-old from Santa Monica rejoined Match.com the weekend after Thanksgiving, having broken up with the guy she'd been seeing the last few months.
While Fields had attempted to find men more organically, i.e. in the real world, the last few times she'd been to wine bars with a girlfriend in the hopes of meeting someone new, she said, "We were like, 'Where are all the people?' There aren't any."
For Fields, it was the relatively recent void-of-people-in-public-places that led her to spend more time with her keyboard. But for a lot of other Americans, it's decreased wealth -- both real and perceived -- that's keeping them home, inspiring them to spend less money and more quality time with their computers.
Money worries are even making them more picky. While Match.com reported a 50% increase in profile views from November to December, a recent survey of 1,500 members found that 84% of them were "being more selective about first dates in today's economy."
"There's this underlying anxiety I feel energetically everywhere I go," Fields said. "Everybody I meet, there's this tentativeness."
That tentativeness is extending beyond a singleton's willingness to seal the deal and make a first date. It's also manifesting as a hesitancy to reach for the check at the end of an outing.
"Guys aren't jumping on it anymore," Fields said. "It's uncomfortable."
Wendy Rice, a 33-year-old chef from Hollywood, said she'd also experienced an unusually high frequency of daters playing "chicken" with the bill.
"Some guy took me out to dinner at Benihana's and he only brought $100. I was like, 'Hello. You're taking me out,' " said Rice, who, on the Craigslist ad she posted last week, asked, "What happened to date night?" "Another guy took me out and said he forgot his wallet."
Rice didn't believe him.
"You left your house. You picked me up. You put gas in your car. You bought yourself cigarettes," she said.
Men ages 25 to 44 are feeling the most stressed about the effects of their personal economic situations on their love lives, according to the eHarmony survey. Psychologist Diana Kirschner speculates it's because American men derive so much self-worth from their jobs.
"A lot of self-esteem and self-love and the identity of being a powerful person is tied up with work in this culture," said Kirschner, a New York City relationship expert and author of the dating guidebook "Love in 90 Days." "It can really stress people out if they're out of work or financially challenged or feel like they can't do their normal courting routine."
But even though less income often means lower self-esteem, it doesn't have to be that way, Kirschner said.
"When there's less money available to go on fancier dates, people can have a very simple connection that's even more fulfilling," she said.
Doing things like going for a walk means there's more talking. And where "there's more talking, there's more sharing, so there's intimacy. There's more closeness. You wind up being more real with each other," she said. "It's not about impressing the other person, because you can't [afford] to impress them."
That's been the experience of Johnnie Hobbs of North Hollywood. The 26-year-old aspiring actor, tap dancer and writer has a full-time job at the Apple Store in Pasadena and says the economy "hasn't affected me that much."
Still, he said, when he goes out, "You're trying to save money as best you can without telling the girl you're saving money."
"It's a very thin line between sort of being that man and also understanding that I may not have the money right now," he added.
Financial stress is a difficult topic to discuss, regardless of relationship status. Hobbs said he has "never had that kind of conversation" with a date. Instead, his tack is to steer the date toward activities he can afford.
"It's not that I want to disguise it. It's just something like, 'Look. Let's do this.' You balance out the money you have," said Hobbs, who likes taking dates to the movies, which costs him $23, or dinner at Olive Garden, for which he spends $30 to $50.
"You can find fun things to do without spending money," he said. "Even if I had money, like billions and millions of dollars, I'd still probably do sort of the same thing."